In a change of heart, Yasser Arafat and Israel's top diplomat met Wednesday and agreed to try to revive flagging Mideast peace efforts following weeks of street battles and political feuding.

Meanwhile in Israel, the West Bank was ordered sealed following a warning of a terrorist attack. Soldiers also were told to hitchhike only armed and in pairs to protect them against kidnapping attempts by Islamic militants.The new alert came hours before President Clinton's Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and later with Arafat in Gaza City to try to rescue the faltering peace process.

Israeli-Palestinian contacts broke down last month after Netanyahu ordered construction to begin on a Jewish neighborhood in the Israeli-annexed part of Jerusalem where the Palestinians want their future capital.

The construction triggered daily stone-throwing riots in the West Bank and bombings by militants in which six people died.

With violence on the rise, there was a change of heart Wednesday in Malta and the Palestinian leader and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy met for 20 minutes in the highest-level contact since the construction project dispute arose.

The meeting in a hotel just outside the capital, Valletta, took place after Arab and European diplomats also pressed for the talks during a conference of 27 European and Mediterranean countries.

Both men initially resisted direct talks after arriving Tuesday. They were more conciliatory Wednesday.

"We must work in an atmosphere conducive to peace, not with violence or mutual allegations," Levy said.

"We did not, of course, resolve all the issues that are on our agenda (but) the atmosphere was good and I am satisfied," Levy told reporters at the Valletta airport upon his departure.

Arafat's spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, said both men promised to "go back to the peace process."

"Starting tonight we will start working to overcome the differences. . . . Mr. Arafat repeated that the peace process has to continue," Levy said.

Arafat was told to do more to stamp out violence, the Israeli leader added, but the government will not halt construction of the Jewish homes in east Jerusalem.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Survey shows pessimism

Most Americans believe that neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is committed to peace, according to a survey sponsored by an Arab-American group.

Only 15 percent of people responding to the survey made public Wednesday said Arafat was committed to peace. Forty percent said he was not. Netanyahu fared better, with 21 percent saying he seeks peace and 25 percent saying he does not.

The telephone survey of 1,008 likely voters was taken Monday through Thursday of last week by Zogby International and had a 3 percentage point margin of error.

John Zogby, president of the firm, is the brother of James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, which commissioned the poll along with Asharq Al-Awsat, an newspaper published in London.

The results of the Zogby poll were similar to those of a poll conducted 10 days earlier by Louis Harris and Associates. The Harris poll said 31 percent of Americans blame Palestinian authorities for current tensions in the Middle East and 28 percent blame the Israeli government.